by GREG KING
As the end of the year approaches, it is time to cast a rather self-indulgent look back at the last twelve months and give you my list of those films that impressed me the most. Of course it is self-indulgent and shaped by personal taste.
British director Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead, etc) was raised on a diet of Hollywood genre films, but his quirky sensibility and sense of humour subverts the usual tropes of the genre. Baby Driver is an immensely entertaining and fast paced heist film/car chase thriller set in Atlanta. Baby Driver is a stylish film, albeit a little derivative at times, and is a bit of a throwback to the hardboiled American crime films of the 70s. It will remind audiences of some of those great car chase films of the era. Baby Driver features some great, carefully choreographed hyperpaced car chases, which Wright handles with plenty of frenetic energy and imaginative stunt work. Baby Driver is one cool action movie and demonstrates Wright’s deft command of the language of cinema and his understanding of the genre conventions. This is, arguably, his best film since Shaun Of The Dead.
2. HIDDEN FIGURES.
This inspirational and feel good true-life drama Hidden Figures is also a biggest crowd pleaser and accessible drama. Based on Margot Lee Shatterly’s non-fiction book about a trio of African-American women who worked on the NASA space program in the 1960s Hidden Figures explores how they challenged the segregation and racial attitudes of the time. Not only did the women have to smash through NASA’s glass ceiling but they also had to overcome the colour bar. All three central characters are well-drawn and the three actresses are excellent, delivering the goods with convincing and heartfelt performances. The director is Theodore Melfi, who previously gave us the superb St Vincent with Bill Murray and an excellent Melissa McCarthy. While taking some liberties with the source material, Melfi and scriptwriter Allison Schroeder skilfully weave together a number of narrative threads and big themes. They also make the complex maths exciting and accessible. It succeeds because of the effectiveness of its storytelling and it does make you feel angry at times. The film delivers a heartfelt plea for tolerance and equality, themes which still resonate strongly today.
This is Hugh Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine, after eight films in seventeen years of playing the Marvel superhero. And what a great way to go out! He has saved the best till last. Not only is Logan the best film in the Wolverine franchise to date but it is also one of the best comic book/superhero adaptations. Logan is up there with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. And since the success of Deadpool last year, the producers have realised that it is okay to make an R-rated comic book film, full of violence and causal profanity. Logan is a very visceral and violent film with a high body count. Director James Mangold previously directed Jackman in 2013’s The Wolverine, and here he ups the ante with some brutal but effectively staged action sequences. He handles the action scenes with flair and maintains a cracking pace throughout. There are lashings of humour throughout that nicely punctuate the action and alleviate the darker and bleaker tone of the material. Mangold and screenwriter Scott Frank (Minority Report, etc) deliver a strangely poetic and melancholy end to this gritty, violent tale of redemption and justice.
4. CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.
Directed by Luca Gaudagnino, this is a sensitive coming of age story set in a sun-drenched rural part of Italy in the 1980s and it deals with themes of adolescence, obsession, desire, repressed sexuality, infatuation and identity. This is the director’s most mature, tender and restrained work to date It features a breakout performance by rising young star Timothee Chalamet, and a nicely nuanced turn from Armie Hammer. The sumptuous and seductive visuals have been provided by Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom.
Based on the 1986 novel written by the prolific Stephen King, It is essentially a quintessential coming of age story in which the usual tropes of the genre are mixed with strong elements of the classic horror movie. Like the best of King’s novels, It is a dense, richly layered work with lots of subplots, well developed characters and backstories, and a strong sense of setting and place. The trio of scriptwriters have remained reasonably faithful to the source material, and they capture the essence of King’s 1100-page opus. The film is steeped in a sense of nostalgia for the period, and seems to have been heavily influenced by the likes of Stand By Me and The Goonies. The film deals with some universal themes like loss, grief, death, abuse, bullying, dysfunctional families, friendship, loyalty, resilience, facing your fears. The film is also littered with meta references to many of King’s other stories. Director Andy Muschietti (Mama, etc) comes from a background in horror, and he effectively raises the tension, and he also brings a nastier edge to the source material that has been missing from many recent horror films. The film is quite atmospheric, with some quite creepy and suspenseful set pieces. Pennywise is another creation that earns a place in the pantheon of great horror movie characters alongside Freddy Krueger and Mike Myers. Bill Skarsgard (from tv series Hemlock Grove and the recent Atomic Blonde, etc) steps into the shoes of Pennywise, the scary killer clown who was modelled on the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy. This role was previously played to good effect by a truly malevolent Curry in the 1990 miniseries, but Skarsgard brings a different, more predatory and unsettling approach to his performance. The young and relatively unknown cast all are solid; they have a natural screen presence and they develop a strong chemistry. They also make us care about these characters and their fate.
Based on the best-selling 2013 young adult novel written by R J Palacio, Wonder tells the story of 10-year old August Pullman (played by Jacob Tremblay, who was so good in Room), a sensitive and intelligent boy who was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disfiguring craniofacial abnormality. The film explores one year in the life of August and the challenges this sweet natured kid faces. The film deals with some universal themes such as adolescent angst, treating people with kindness, tolerance, acceptance, family, friendship, bullying. It’s not what you look like, but what’s inside that is important. Wonder will strongly remind audiences of Mask, the darker Peter Bogdanovich directed drama from 1985 that starred Cher, although its prepubescent hero here faces a different set of challenges to Eric Stoltz’s character. Wonder has been directed in sympathetic, sincere and compassionate fashion by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks Of Being A Wall Flower, etc), who avoids false sentimentality and many of the usual cliches. All of the main characters are well drawn and developed, and director Stephen Chbosky draws solid performances from his ensemble cast. Tremblay delivered one of the great performances from a child in Room, and he carries this film on his young shoulders. His character here shares a few surface similarities to Room in that he plays a young boy experiencing the harsh realities of the real world for the first time. A quiet, gentle story full of positive values, Wonder is an uplifting, heartfelt, moving, inspiring, feel-good and crowd-pleasing film suitable for family audiences. It is a manipulative, shameless tear jerker, but in the best way. Bring plenty of tissues.
7. THE DISASTER ARTIST.
As with Tim Burton’s glorious biopic about trashy filmmaker Ed Wood, The Disaster Artist is an affectionate look at a deluded filmmaker and a thoroughly entertaining look at the making of a bad and unintentionally hilarious movie. Tommy Wiseau’s self-funded 2003 vanity project The Room is up there with Ed Wood’s terrible and much maligned Plan 9 From Outer Space, and is widely regarded as the “Citizen Kane of bad movies.” The Disaster Artist deconstructs that awful film and that looks at the story behind the making of The Room. This deliciously entertaining and very funny behind the scenes look at the making of The Room is something of a passion project for star and director James Franco, who is perfect as Wiseau. The Disaster Artist is genuinely funny stuff, with plenty of laugh out loud moments. You would probably get more out of this film if you have seen the original. This thoroughly enjoyable experience is far superior to the cult film that inspired it.
Films like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge have given us gritty, visceral and harrowing depictions of the horrors and carnage of war, and the senseless loss of young lives, and they have raised the bar of the war movie genre. With his latest film Dunkirk, writer/director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, etc) again reminds us of the high cost of war, but he eschews the gory blood and guts depictions of those two films. This is Nolan’s tenth feature film, and confirms why he is one of the great filmmakers working today. Dunkirk is set in May 1940, and focuses on Operation Dynamo, the effort to evacuate some 300,000 British and allied troops who were trapped on the beach at Dunkirk in the north of France after having been driven there by the advancing German army. Dunkirk unfolds in a nonlinear narrative style that spans three distinct time frames and gives us a glimpse of the war on land, sea, and in the air. Nolan is a visual stylist and his film is a visually strong and visceral spectacle, and an immersive film that takes us into the heart of war, the chaos and confusion without any hint of sentimentality. A lot of the scenes on the beaches of Dunkirk are almost dialogue free, which adds to the experience. The sense of fear and tension almost becomes palpable. The immersive sound design allows audiences to hear the bullets zing and feel every explosion, the screeching of metal as ships sink, and the hum of aircraft. Nolan has shot the film in a mix of IMAX format and 65mm, and he uses every inch of the screen effectively. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Spectre, etc) gives us some truly spectacular visuals, and the aerial dog fight scenes, in particular, are spectacular and exhilarating. His use of handheld camera also gives us a sense of urgency and immediacy. Nolan has also cast largely unknown young performers as the British soldiers, adding to the very real sense of inexperience, naivete and fear that they feel. Nolan has pared the film back to an efficient 106 minutes, cutting out any real depth of characterisation here. Hence, we don’t get to really identify with many of the characters, which is one of the main quibbles I have with the film. We seem to be kept at a distance from them emotionally. Dunkirk is a powerful study of courage, heroism, sacrifice and survival. It an impressive and ambitious achievement and almost seems like Oscar bait. Nolan’s attention to detail in every department is certainly impressive.
A searing drama set in Detroit, Michigan, in the summer of 1967, Detroit is the latest film from Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow. Detroit has been written by Bigelow’s regular collaborator Mark Boal, a former journalist who also wrote the scripts for her Oscar-winning Iraqi war drama The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. His script explores big themes of racism, the abuse of authority, violence, injustice, repression, moral corruption, and the racial inequality of America, themes that still resonate strongly today. This is an angry and deliberately provocative film that picks away at an ugly and festering sore of racism and injustice. It shows that little has really changed in the fifty years since, which lends the material a painful relevance and topicality. Bigelow is a very visceral filmmaker whose films have always had a very masculine quality (Point Break, etc). As she did with Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow brings an almost raw, documentary quality and authenticity to the material. She incorporates actual archival footage from the period to give it a sense of immediacy and authenticity. Detroit is an unrelenting film that grips for its 143 minutes, but I felt that it could have even been longer.
10. GOD’S OWN COUNTRY.
Gay themed romance best described as Wuthering Heights meets Brokeback Mountain. This gay coming out drama set against the backdrop of the picturesque, but bleak windswept Yorkshire moors has invited comparisons to Ang Lee’s gay cowboy film Brokeback Mountain. But whereas Lee’s film had mainstream appeal, God’s Own Country is a far more austere work that will not have the same broad appeal. It is firmly in the tradition of those grim kitchen sink dramas beloved of British cinema of the 60’s, but also has the gritty realism of Mike Leigh, etc. this is a moving, thoughtful, heartfelt and wonderfully nuanced drama that marks an impressive feature directorial debut for actor turned director Francis Lee. But the film also touches on broader contemporary themes such as class, identity, sexuality, a dying tradition of the family farm, and the impact of European immigration in rural England. Lee grew up on a Yorkshire farm, so he knows this territory well, and he gives the scenes depicting the daily routine of the farm a real sense of authenticity. This is something of a love letter to the Yorkshire landscape as well. It has been beautifully shot in widescreen by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who comes from a background in short films, and he makes the oppressive and harsh landscapes seem eerily beautiful. And he gives the material a moody and brooding quality. Lee has a strong sense of visual style, and there are some striking visual compositions.
This moving Australian-produced drama is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy from a poor rural family who, the age of five, became separated from his older brother in his native village and who eventually found his way home a quarter of a century later. The film is based on Saroo’s autobiography A Long Way Home, which detailed how he used Google Earth technology to discover the small village in India where he was raised. That obsessive quest pathed the way for an emotional and heartbreaking reunion with his mother, who had never given up hope of finding him. Brierley’s novel was adapted for the screen by novelist Luke Davies and explores universal themes of loss, family and a sense of belonging. The early scenes set in India are among the more moving and powerful even though they are largely dialogue free. The second part of the film concentrating on the adult Saroo is less engaging and lacks the intensity of the earlier scenes, and is also a lot more overtly sentimental and manipulative. Young newcomer Sunny Pawal (selected from some 4000 kids who auditioned) is the real find here, and his wonderful, cheeky presence, innocence and natural charm as the young Saroo gives the film its heart and soul. He also brings a stubborn and resilient quality to his performance, but he also manages to convey his fear and uncertainty. Lion is a winning, feel good crowd-pleasing drama about determination and resilience.
AND THE REST:
A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN – tough prison drama that’s like a Thai version of Midnight Express.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL 2.
JOHN WICK 2.